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When my son was a baby, I thought nothing of changing my clothes or bathing in front of him. He’s 4 now and nothing has changed. But recently a laminated sign on the door of the women’s locker room in our local YMCA gave me pause. “With boys age 5 and over,” it read, “please use the Family Changing Area or the men’s locker room.” That got me thinking: Is the clock really on? A year from now, if my son spots me undressed some morning, will that image make a lasting impression? Will it scar him in some way? Is that even possible?
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CNN addressed the issue last month in a story that referenced studies about the impact of parental nudity on kids. One, they reported, “found no negative impact on adolescents who regularly saw their parents naked at ages 3 and 6.” Ok, great. But another “found that parental nudity when kids were ages 6 and 11 resulted in more permissive attitudes about sex and increased sexual frequency.” Hmmm.
Mom friends I consulted report that they also began to grapple with this question when their sons approached that 5-year mark. A mother of now 6-year-old twins says she opted for privacy as soon as she felt her boys notice that her body looked different than theirs. “I didn’t want to be analyzed every time I got dressed in front of them,” she says. Another girlfriend confesses that she grew more conscious about covering up when her then-5-year-old “started talking about boobies.”
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Age four and five is a stage of self-exploration, Proactive Parenting educator Sharon Silver tells Yahoo Parenting. And during this phase, the messages you send your child about their bodies are actually more important than the amount of skin you show, she says. “You want them to learn to be accepting of their body.”
The mother of a 3-year-old girl I spoke with said such encouragement is part of why she, for one, bares all. “I see nothing wrong with mothers and daughters being nude together,” she says. “We have the same things and I feel it’s important for girls to embrace and love their bodies. It’s natural. Still, all that said, if I had a boy, it would be a different story.”
Son or daughter, chances are, the questions that four-and five-year-old children are going to ask will share the same theme: Anatomy. And You Plus Two parenting coach Rachel Cedar says parents should seize the opportunity, if asked, to talk about different body parts, regardless of how many are exposed. “The more you hide and avoid talking about these things may make children wonder if it’s wrong to talk about,” Cedar tells Yahoo Parenting. “Make it taboo and down the road that can lead to misconceptions and misinformation.”
Things change, though, around age seven. That’s when you really want to gauge how comfortable your child is with the degree of nudity you’ve decided to go with and adjust accordingly. Children make a huge developmental leap in terms of personal awareness and logic at this age, explains Silver. “There’s a shift to start having a point of view and turning a gaze toward his/her peer group,” she says. “This is when kids compare, ‘What does your mommy do?’” In other words, your elementary schooler grasps that the birthday suit you wear while brushing your teeth post-shower, may not be the style that all the other moms are sporting. If he or she seems unsettled by your revealed skin, this is the point at which experts agree you need to respect the feeling and wrap up.
By age 10 and after, kids will typically grab anything to cover themselves, says Silver. So again, parents may want to do the same out of respect. Still, “it’s such an individual call,” she adds. “Even some 3-year-olds will say, ‘I’m in the bathroom. I want privacy,’ and parents need to recognize that.”
All things considered, there is no one guideline as to what you should do and at what age, Dr. Alan Kazdin, director of the Yale Parenting Center tells Yahoo Parenting, “Culture makes a huge difference. Religion makes a huge difference as do parents’ own individual attitudes about the body.”
The only real “con” Kazdin lists for baring all is that if a child is uncomfortable seeing parents naked, it’ll likely make him or her uneasy about nudity in general. “And you’d like a child not to be uptight or concerned about natural processes, such as eating and drinking but also the human body.” His advice: “Take cues from your child and from your own values.”
That’s what works for one mom to a 3-year-old boy, with whom I spoke. “I know there will be an age when being nude in front of him stops, but right now it doesn’t bother me and it doesn’t phase him,” she shares. “And as long as we are both comfortable with it, my son will see me naked – sometimes.”